Relentless

Last week Tim and I spent a few days in Cancun, Mexico to celebrate our 15th anniversary (how are we this old?). After an unseasonably cold and wet Pennsylvania spring, my only stipulations on the destination of our trip were: WARM and SUNNY. Since “15” is a pretty big deal and we haven’t gone anywhere together in many years, we splurged… and it was worth every penny!

My favorite thing about Cancun, as I expected, was the ocean. I still can’t get over how blue the water was – it seemed unreal, like someone dumped boatloads of various shades of blue dye in it. No matter how much I hate that salty, sticky feeling, I couldn’t wait to go for a swim!

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Unfortunately, the perfect swim I pictured in my head did not happen because the crashing waves were relentless! At the Jersey shore, where we do most of our beach swimming, after every group of three or four waves, there is usually a period of calm where you can make some forward progress.

But on this day in Cancun there were no such periods of calm. The waves were constant and strong! It seemed like every time I got a little deeper, I would just get knocked over and dragged back to shore. And then, before I could even stand up and wipe my eyes, I would get pummeled yet again! I just couldn’t win! My favorite sunglasses even found a new home at the bottom of the sea 😕

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One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Jacob. A struggler from birth, Jacob wrestled with his brother, his father, his children, his circumstances, and his God. Though he was the beneficiary of the blessing and the heir to the leadership of his family, things rarely seemed to go his way.

After being born the second of a set of twins, Jacob fought and deceived his way to the top of his family. Unfortunately, his trickery came back to haunt him as his father-in-law then tricked him into 14 years of hard labor. Some time later, his beloved wife, Rachel, died and then his most beloved son, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Jacob (believing Joseph to be dead) “refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.'” (Genesis 37:35)

As if this wasn’t enough, a famine then overtook the land Jacob had settled his family in, the land God had promised this family for generations. Upon hearing that there was food in Egypt, though, Jacob sent his sons (except the youngest – Benjamin, the only remaining son of Rachel) to purchase food from there. His worst fears were confirmed when his sons returned with a report that they had been dealt harshly with by the “lord of the land” – that one son was being held prisoner and the only way to free him was to send Benjamin as proof that they were not spies.

“Their father Jacob said to them, ‘You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!'” (Genesis 42:36)

But what Jacob couldn’t see was that everything was actually going for him! The “lord of the land” was none other than Joseph himself and, not only was he soon to be reunited with his son, but his family was about to be spared certain death – for five more years of famine remained. These things that at first seemed to be knocking him over again and again were not against him at all.

As Joseph told his brothers, “For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Genesis 45:6-7)

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In speaking of Joseph’s treatment of his brothers when they first came to Egypt to buy food, commentator Matthew Henry says, “God in His providence sometimes seems harsh with those He loves, and speaks roughly to those for whom yet He has great mercy in store.”*

Like you, I’ve had many days and even seasons of life where I felt like everything was going against me – days where I’ve questioned the “love” of this God I put my faith in. So many of the things we go through aren’t what we would see as the results of “love”, and, if He really is “in control”, then why does it feel like the waves of His ways are going against us?

Psalm 103:2-4 says:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy”

When we confess our belief in Christ and receive Him into our lives, it’s like stepping into the ocean of God’s benefits. The problem is that at first, all this healing, redemption, and mercy, doesn’t seem “beneficial” at all! It may even feel like it’s just one thing after another and that you barely have time to recover before something else hits. We often think, “If God really loves me, then why are these things happening to me?” – but it’s those things that seem to be against us that are actually the waves of His steadfast love and His constant work in our lives.

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After losing my sunglasses on my first Cancun swimming adventure, I wasn’t too sure about venturing into the ocean again – the serene hotel pools seemed much safer. But I’m not one to back down from a challenge and I felt the need for redemption, so I gave it another try… and had a blast! Because I knew what I was getting myself into, frustration turned into joy, and I couldn’t stop laughing every time I got lambasted by a wave! It was probably my favorite memory from our trip.

When you step into a true relationship with God through Christ, you’re willingly walking into the waves of His steadfast love. This love is unlike the passive, emotion-based tolerance we’ve grown accustomed to in our society. This love is the “chesed” – the active, truth-based, lovingkindness and goodness – of a God who is above all things and really does know what is best for us and for His glory.**

I believe, in the end, or at least after some time, we’ll look back at the times we got knocked over and instead of pain, we’ll see healing. Instead of judgment, we’ll see mercy. Instead of frustration, we’ll see joy. We’ll see that the very things we thought were relentlessly against us were actually relentlessly for us.

“But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness…
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me…
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving…
Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and everything that moves in them.”

(Psalm 69:13, 16, 30 & 34)

*Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, Genesis 42. blueletterbible.org

**https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2617&t=ESV

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Perspective

I’m fascinated by flying. Ever since I watched those tiny little planes flying so high above my rural Vermont backyard as a child, I’ve wanted in. What did they see from up there? Could they see me all the way down on the ground, waving my arms to say “Hi!”?

My first flight (that I remember) was on a trip to Peru during my sophomore year of college. I remember wanting to use all of my film taking pictures of the Andes mountains from the window of the plane – I couldn’t believe how small those huge, snow-covered peaks looked from above!

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Over the past few weeks in our high school youth group, we’ve been focusing on “Truth” – specifically the truth about ourselves. Because the truth is that we all have truth that we are hiding or denying because it’s too scary to admit or confess. The series was inspired by the lyrics of a song called “If We’re Honest”, which says:

“Truth is harder than a lie
The dark seems safer than the light
And everyone has a heart that loves to hide”

As adults, we know that this isn’t just true of young people, it’s also true of us – we’ve just had more time to build up the walls and perfect the disguise. Our sin has been forgiven because of Christ’s death and resurrection, but that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle daily to break the patterns of sin in our lives. And the truth about these struggles, especially if we’ve been doing the ‘Christian thing’ for most of our lives (and think we should have it figured out by now), can be hard to accept and even harder to share with others.

This is mostly due to a perspective problem. For some of us, we’ve blown our sin struggles up to be bigger than they actually are. We stay in the dark because the “dark seems safer” than the rejection and condemnation we are sure the light will bring. And for the rest of us, we’ve gone the other direction and shrunk them. We minimize our sin by convincing ourselves it’s not really that bad – and by believing the lie that if we pretend it’s not there, it will eventually just go away.

But as the song goes on to say:
“It may be hard, but the best thing we could ever do, ever do
Bring your brokenness, and I’ll bring mine
‘Cause love can heal what hurt divides
And mercy’s waiting on the other side
If we’re honest”

This song echoes the truth found in James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Truth is scary, but fully admitting it to God and others may be the only way we can experience genuine forgiveness and healing.

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On the final night of this youth group series, we gave students the opportunity to be honest – to bring their brokenness into the light by writing it down or sharing it with the group. It was a powerful experience and, as always, we were so impressed at the willingness of this next generation to put themselves out there and be vulnerable and real!

By the end of our time that night, after hearing the testimonies and reading the confessions of so many students, I just wanted to pick them all up and give them a big hug. I wanted to say, “If you could only see what I see! If you could see what God sees when He looks at you!” Because a change in perspective could change everything.

As much as our view of our sin is warped, so is our view of our value. From down here on the ground, our perspective is so limited – all we’ve ever known is the view from inside our own head and sometimes we feel like we’re waving up to God saying, “Hey! Can you even see me down here?”. In a world of billions, it’s easy to hide – and easy to hide our sin because we feel like we’re so small it doesn’t really matter.

But the honest truth is that we’re more valuable than we could ever know. Yes, we struggle with sin and God sees every detail of it in zoomed-in HD-billion-megapixel clarity. But from His perspective, the mountains of our sin don’t look anything like the frightening, seemingly unconquerable peaks we see. From His perspective, we have no reason to hide because He gave His Son to pay for it and sent His Holy Spirit to transform us – not just to get us out of the punishment of hell or free us from a life of guilt, but because He has a much bigger purpose in mind!

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Whenever I fly, I pick a window seat and then stare out the window the whole flight. I love trying to figure out where we are, because everything looks so different from above. On our most recent flight, Tim and I were following along the flight path on our smartphone maps and we couldn’t get over how close things that should have been far away seemed from 30,000 feet in the air!

The answer to our hidden sin struggles is a change in perspective. The answer is to move out of the backyard, jump on a plane, and start seeing His viewpoint.

When we acknowledge the true depth of our sin, we have the ability to call it what it is – and believe it or not, it immediately becomes a whole lot less scary. When we confess it to each other, we give God the opportunity to use others to show us the mercy that seems so far away, but is actually just “waiting on the other side”. When we come out of hiding, we are set free to start living the bigger purpose and “bigger picture” life that God has for us.

We may be small, but we are invaluable to the work God is doing in this world. There are so many people out there who need our love, so many people whose lives could be forever changed by our simple acts of selflessness, so many people who would benefit from us living out, unhindered, the good works God has planned for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

I know for me it’s been tempting to stay in the backyard, stay hiding, and try to figure it out myself. But all that results in is me flapping my own arms, complaining and asking God why it’s not working! He’s given me a much better option, I just have to be willing to trust that He knows what He’s talking about.

Do you have another follower of Christ in your life who you can be honest with? Are you being completely honest with yourself? Whatever it is – you can’t surprise God – and it’s likely that you won’t surprise anyone else either. Instead of condemnation or rejection, it’s more likely you’ll hear these words: “If you could only see what I see! If you could see what God sees when He looks at you!” Whatever your addiction, thought pattern, controlling desire, or other sin struggle is – mercy, healing, and incredible purpose are waiting on the other side.

*”If We’re Honest”, Francesca Battistelli, 2014

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Train

Warm-up complete. Race number pinned on. Earbuds in. “Running Playlist” cued up. Walk to starting line. Wait anxiously. Try to breathe.

Ready. Set. GO!

There was excitement in the air as Saturday’s Crush Childhood Cancer 2016 5K kicked off. Not only does this amazing annual event raise money, awareness, and support for families of children diagnosed with cancer, it also brings our community together for some healthy competition.*

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After running cross country and track in high school, I took a nice long break, but then pulled my sneakers out of the closet to train for the 2013 Crush Childhood Cancer race. It was actually Tim’s idea and he agreed to go slow and stay with me because I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it to the end!

The exhilaration and adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line that day, though, renewed my passion for running and reignited my competitive spirit (especially since Tim beat me at the last step!). I began running on a more regular basis and even joined a running class at the YMCA with a simple goal in mind – improve my time at Crush next year. Okay, and beat my husband.

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Both of which I did. In 2014, I beat my time by four minutes and my husband by seven!

By the time the 2015 race came around, I had two years of consistent running and distance training under my belt. Since beating Tim was a given, my only goal that year was to improve my time.

Which I did. And I just happened to pass our pastor, Roman, on the way to the finish line as well (setting a whole new standard and goal for 2016!). All my hard work had definitely paid off.

There’s great value in physical training, especially when you have a specific goal in mind. As you move your body in certain ways, it gets accustomed to moving in those ways. As you put your muscles to use, they become stronger. As you exercise, your cardiovascular system increases in efficiency. As you fight through the discomfort of getting those lazy bones moving, your mental ability to persevere through pain increases.

When race day comes, as you stand on that line about to start, the truth is that the end result that day has very little to do with how hard you’re willing to work in that moment – and much more to do with how hard you’ve been working over the past few weeks, months, and even years. Effort becomes secondary to instinct when your muscles, systems, and mind have been accustomed to and prepared for the activity they are about to launch into.

In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul encourages Timothy (and us) to “train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things”. Though our salvation is not something we can earn or be “trained” into (all we can do is receive it), growing to be more “godly”, or more “like God” in our character absolutely requires effort on our part. Even if it’s a small effort – consistently reading and studying about the nature of God while actively taking steps to live like Jesus over many weeks, months, and years will yield incredibly valuable results.

Especially on race day.

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Life is hard – struggles are real, circumstances are less than ideal, and trials love to rear their ugly heads. Even when we think things are going fairly well, most of us know that just means something else is waiting around the next corner. Every single one of us has had, or is going to have, a ‘race’ present itself in our lives over the next few weeks, months, or years.

In these ‘races’, our character is put on display – because the results on race day prove the training. It’s in those moments where you hear the bad news, where you realize your greatest fears have come true, or where you think things can’t get any worse (and then they do) that you’re standing at the starting line, just trying to breathe. You want to just stand still or somehow go back in time, but you realize you can’t – you must move forward. And as you take those first few steps, you realize that effort will become secondary to instinct.

When I first began disciplining myself to get up early and spend time reading God’s Word daily, I had no idea what the payoff would be on race day. I knew I was growing – my muscles were being strengthened and my systems were being accustomed to seeking and seeing God in everything. But I didn’t know that when the hard times hit – when the gun went off and I started taking those first few steps – that seeking and seeing God would come so naturally.

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If you don’t go to our church, you’re probably wondering if I accomplished my goal this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I came in nine seconds slower than last year’s race – and nine seconds behind my competition (although it was neck and neck the whole time!).

Could I have stepped on the gas, picked up the pace, and taken Roman at the end? Maybe. But it’s more likely that I can directly attribute the loss to the number of times I drove by him as he was running – and I had decided to skip that day (or that week – or month) because it was too cold. Or I was too busy. Or too tired. Or I was on my way to Dunkin’ Donuts 😉

A few weeks ago I heard the testimony of Katherine Wolf, who at the age of 26 suffered a massive stroke. She survived, but has had to relearn how to walk and talk and still lives with many of the effects of the stroke. In sharing her story, Katherine said that she often gets asked if this trial is what has made her faith so strong – to which she replies, “No! My faith was strong before this trial!”**

The thing about these ‘races’ is that you have no idea when they’re coming. It’s not like you can say, “Oh look, I have some marriage struggles headed my way this fall” or “That diagnosis is coming next year, so I better get ready!” We don’t sign up for these things and then have months to prepare – our only choice is to be constantly preparing.

I’ve got 360-something days to train for Crush 2017, but my next ‘race’ may be coming tomorrow. So, even though I’m tired and my to-do list is out of control, I’m going to get my muscles moving today with some time in God’s Word. This training might feel unnecessary and inconvenient, but I know the results will prove the effort totally worth it.

*http://crush-childhood-cancer.org

**Katherine Wolf, IF Gathering 2016
To find out more about Katherine’s story, visit http://www.hopeheals.com/our-story/

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Name

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I was named after my dad and a Barry Manilow song. My mom was looking for something that would rhyme with my dad’s name, Randy, and it just so happened that one of her favorite songs at the time had a perfect suggestion. So “Mandy” it was. Although I haven’t always loved my name – my name it is – and I think it suits me well.

Names are powerful. We start recognizing the sound of our own name at just a few months of age and for most of us, it’s the first word we learn to write. It’s the word we use to describe ourselves when we meet someone new and successful leaders know that one of the keys to influencing people is to learn and use their names. Some of our happiest feelings come from hearing our name lifted up in honor or praise. There’s power in hearing someone speak your name.

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A few weeks ago, I walked into a worship experience with a stressed out, burnt out, grumpy, walled-up heart. I’d been waiting for this for months, so I should have been excited, but I just wasn’t really in the mood.

When the concert first started, one of the leaders prayed that God would be present and that He would speak and move in the hearts of everyone there as we worshipped. I agreed with this prayer, but only for the other people in the room – not for me.

I partially and reluctantly sang my way through the first song. I felt that if I engaged and participated, I would only be a hypocrite because my heart just wasn’t there. As the second song began, I remember thinking, “This is gonna be a long night…”.

But somewhere in that song, even though I didn’t feel like I should, I raised my hands and sang anyway. Even though I felt like a failure and a fake, I made a conscious choice to worship – to lift up the name of Jesus – even if I was lifting it up from the pit of my mess.

“Your Name, Your Name is victory
All praise will rise to Christ our King”
*

The very second I raised my hands, a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders and I felt God speak to me so clearly. It was almost like He called me by name to let me know that whatever I was feeling – it was okay. I could still worship, because my worship wasn’t about me.

Psalm 95:1 says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD”. At the core of worship is a lifting of our voices (“let us sing”) and our hearts (“for joy”) to the Lord. We “shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (v. 2) because of who He is (“the Rock”) and what He has done (“our salvation”). We worship simply because He is worthy of our praise.

The name “Jesus” means “the Lord saves”. When we worship Him, we are elevating that “name” – who He is (“the Lord”) and what He has done (“saved”) – above ourselves and above all other things. We lift our hands to symbolize the lifting of His name above all other names.

Before that moment at the concert, I thought I wasn’t worshipping, but I actually was – I was just lifting up the wrong name. In my refusal to sing and engage my heart, I was really just elevating the name of “Mandy” over the name of Jesus. In my funk, I was proclaiming that who I was, what I had done, and how I was feeling held more importance than Him. I was created to worship – it’s a natural part of being human – so if I’m not lifting up His name, there’s a good chance I’m probably lifting up someone else’s, most likely my own.

If you know me, you know me as “Mandy”, but what you may not know is that my real name is actually “Miranda”. Other than a brief attempt to redefine myself in college (“Miranda” sounded so much more sophisticated), I’ve never been called this name, but it is what you’ll find on my birth certificate, driver’s license, and passport.

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Oddly enough, the name “Miranda” means “worthy of admiration”, which also suits me well. Not because I am worthy, but because my greatest temptation is to worship my self. My greatest temptation is to elevate who I am and what I’ve done – even if who I am and what I’ve done has left me in a pit.

But when I make the choice to lift Jesus up instead, I give Him the chance to be who He is and do what He does best – He is, after all, “the Lord” who “saves”. When I lift up His name above my own, I open my heart to hear Him calling my name. When I lift up my hands, it’s like reaching out to Him so He can lift me right out of my pit.

Psalm 95 goes on to say: “For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.” (v. 3-4)

As believers in Christ, whether we are in the pit of failure or the peak of success, the sinkhole of grief or the pinnacle of blessing, the valley of defeat or the summit of victory – it’s all in His hands. No matter where you find yourself today, the choice to lift up His name is the same choice. Even if your heart isn’t there, thats okay – you can still worship because your worship is not about you. It’s not about your name, it’s about His.

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:6-7)

*”Resurrecting” by Elevation Worship, 2015
(https://youtu.be/Rf8Zzn4nOzc)

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Gradual

Last summer we had the opportunity to visit one of Tim’s favorite childhood spots – Sand Bar State Park in northern Vermont. This park, built on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain, offers a very unique and memorable swimming experience.

The water in this area, which would normally be around 150 feet deep, was naturally filled over time with sediment from the Lamoille River as it drained into the lake. The resulting wide area of shallow water makes the swimming area perfect for small children (and people like me who don’t like to get wet!).

As you take a few steps into the water, your brain automatically expects it to get deeper, but you keep going and it barely seems to change at all. It’s a crazy feeling to walk a hundred feet off the shore and still be only a few feet deep!

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Last week I had the incredible opportunity to attend a children and student ministries conference in Atlanta, GA. One of my favorite sessions was led by Pastor Andy Stanley as he shared about how the church saved his life.*

In his message, he explained that it wasn’t one message, one program, or one person that made the difference for him – but rather the cumulative effect of many years of being influenced by his church as he grew up. Andy shared that the church informed his conscience and view of God, showed him that his life had purpose, helped him form lifelong friendships, gave him a window into God’s activity in the world, and taught him generosity.

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Some of my earliest childhood memories have to do with church. Every Sunday, even in the crazy infant and preschool years, my mom would pack us up and we would spend all morning singing Bible songs, going to Sunday School classes, trying to stay quiet in church, and hoping it was a “coffee hour” Sunday (because that meant one thing: baked goods.)

As I reached my late teen years, though, I began to see a Christian world outside of my small-town church and became increasingly discontent with where God had put me. I saw newer worship styles, heard more relevant messages, and met people my age who shared my beliefs. I suddenly felt that for all those years I had been missing out, so I wanted out.

But, 20 years later and now, as a parent myself, I, like Andy Stanley, look back and realize that God used that imperfect little congregation to save my life! It wasn’t one dramatic drop-off into the deep-end moment – but gradual, step by step, week by week, almost imperceptible changes in my growing heart and mind.

So thank you, First Baptist Church of South Londonderry, for informing my conscience and my view of God. Thank you for teaching me the same Bible stories over and over again and for making me memorize John 3:16 and Psalm 23. Thank you for teaching me that, “Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above; Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Savior’s love”** and for showing me that it was possible to forgive just as I had been forgiven.

Thank you, First Baptist, for showing me that my life had a purpose beyond myself. Thank you for telling me the stories of men and women who gave their whole lives to serving God – and for encouraging me to take steps toward that life. And thanks for letting the students take over that service that one Sunday where I gave my first message 😉

Thank you, First Baptist, for faithfully putting your tithes and offerings in those little envelopes so that I could go to summer camp, where I met people my age who loved Jesus, too. Thank you for giving so that I could be surrounded with friends who showed me what a personal relationship with God could look like at my age.

Thank you, First Baptist, for teaching me that “Jesus loves the little children of the world,” and for showing me pictures of a world in need – not just to open my eyes to their plight, but to show me that I could do something to help.

And thank you, First Baptist, for planting in me seeds of generosity that helped me understand that love was meant to be given away.

In Ezekiel 47, the prophet is shown a vision of a river, flowing out of the temple – the place where the Spirit of God was known to dwell. As he is led to walk through this river, he points out that after 1,000 cubits (about 1/3 of a mile) the water is only ankle-deep. Then after another thousand it’s still only knee-deep. After another thousand it’s now waist deep. And then another thousand cubits later, the water is finally over-his-head deep.

Like walking into the Lake Champlain sand bar, the depth increase would be so gradual it would be almost impossible to feel the difference from one step to the next. But over time the river grows to fullness and in the end it “enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” (Ezekiel 47:8-9)

As Spirit-filled believers, we have rivers of life flowing out of us – and when we pour into the lives of children and students, we have the potential to save lives. It may not feel like you’re making a difference because the effect is so gradual – I’m sure there were times when my Sunday School teachers thought that nothing was sinking in, but it was. The fresh waters of the Spirit flowing through people like you into the hearts of the next generation has the potential for so much life.

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You don’t have to be a superstar, you just need to show up. You don’t need to create the best church, you just need to be the church. You don’t even need to work directly with kids if they’re not your thing – you can give financially to ministry activities, support parents, or just be an example of what it looks like to be a growing follower of Jesus.

The love and support of an active, involved local church congregation could change everything for a child. It did for this one and I will be eternally grateful.

*Andy Stanley, Orange Conference 2016, “Save A Life”
**”Wide, Wide As The Ocean”, C.A. Miles, 1914

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